Human Nature or just the Chemistry of our Brains?

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

Since the dawn of time philosophers and ordinary people have been speculating on human nature. Every succeeding gen-eration approaches these issues with new arguments, because each new generation brings new ideas and speculations to allow a more thorough understanding of our laws, their morality, and their implications in society.

Since the dawn of time philosophers and ordinary people have been speculating on human nature. Every succeeding generation approaches these issues with new arguments, because each new generation brings new ideas and speculations to allow a more thorough understanding of our laws, their morality, and their implications in society. For example, a well-known quotation by John Stuart Mill states,
“It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied, and if the fool and pig are of different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides.”
We can continue with a long list of similar dilemmas, like “it’s better to be honest and hungry rather than dishonest and full,” or “it is better to be a poor decent person rather than a rich crook.” But the problem is that it is obviously better to be a satisfied philosopher who can enjoy both sides of life, and it is better to be honest and full, rich and decent. It might be misleading that the categories mentioned above are self-exclusive.
Even though we understand the point that Mill was trying to make, that it is preferable to live a highly spiritual and intellectual life even though it may result in some discomfort or dissatisfaction, this belief is not necessarily an absolute certainty. Ethical truism and spiritual acceptance do not always mean discomfort and hardship. These virtues, along with being their own reward, bear the fruit of not only ethical pleasures but financial ones as well.
It is a very old, deceptive practice to argue that with great knowledge “[comes] great grief”, with all due respect to King Solomon, whose statement inHebrew “yeda rav, tcar rav”(“great knowledge, great grief”) is a little bit outdated.
At the present time we know that our mood and the feeling of satisfaction are ultimately regulated by the chemistry of our brains. Most of the philosophers and great thinkers of the past experienced a lot of stress concerning their discoveries and thoughts that caused them to enter severe depressions. Fools and pigs obviously didn’t experience such pressures and therefore looked to be happier and more satisfied.
We cannot agree that the nature of knowledge itself bears on its shoulders some ancient curse of unhappiness and dissatisfaction. Modern methods of treating depression show that knowledge itself is not the cause of depression; the cause of depression is the stress that appears as a result of intensive thinking and attempts to analyze complicated concepts. With proper pharmaceutical correction these undesirable effects can be eliminated, allowing the pleasure of that knowledge to be even more intense and gratifying than simple earthly pleasures. Furthermore, the satisfaction that philosophy can give to human beings results in a more profound happiness than anything that ignorance or an illusory happiness could offer as the result of a “piggish and foolish” existence.
Let’s examine human nature in respect to the concepts discussed above. Everything that we can observe, realize, and sense is as subjective as the definitions of good and evil. These definitions are the only facts that can be established regarding these two terms with a sufficient degree of certainty that they have opposite meanings. Usually we can analyze good and evil in pairs, where we deal with two sides while the same action is conceived of as good for one side and bad for the other. It is seldom that there is only one side that perceives a certain action or event as good while at the same time there is no other side that would perceive the same action as bad. When one side is benefiting from some action or event it is usually done by damaging, destroying, or causing some sort of negative effect on the other side. We cannot establish a universal definition of good and bad, but in the initial pages of this work we are trying at least to determine something certain in regards to this matter.

We have to make a very important remark at the outset that usually discussions like this one may have disturbing consequences, because jumping to the conclusion that there is no good without evil in certain circumstances may justify evil actions by arguing that there is no action that could be done without causing some direct or collateral damage to a certain party. In order to prevent making such a conclusion we need to determine what sort of objects qualify to be considered with respect to the terms good and evil. For example: we cannot argue that enjoying the sunshine should be perceived as an evil action towards the sun because the sun is losing energy that is used by us and therefore approaching the end of its existence in the universe. This example demonstrates that we cannot operate with the terms good and evil when we deal with inanimate objects, which is true unless the consequences of these actions could affect other living objects. For example, our impact on the global climate could not be perceived as evil towards the planet or its atmosphere because both are inanimate objects, but it could result in negative effects on other living objects that could become the victims of such impact. So we have to state that the definitions of good and evil havemeaning only in respect to actions or events that have direct or indirect effects on living objects. Therefore we have divided nature into two unequal parts, one which includes the whole universe of inanimate objects and a second which includes the tiny portion of objects that we know of as ‘living’.

It is also obvious that among living objects we can distinguish between good and evil only with respect to the level of evolutionary development of certain species. We cannot claim that washing our hands with soap, which is good for us but causes devastating effects to the microbes that grow on our skin, is an act of evil towards the microbes. Therefore, we come to the conclusion that our understanding of the terms good and evil is applicable only to a tiny fraction of living objects that usually belong to our species or are very similar to ours. To illustrate this statement we can say that it is obviously bad to kill a cat, but there is nothing evil in killing microbes orparasites. Of course, this principle is true only if it doesn’t cause any undesirable effects to other living species, such as those that feed on or benefit in other ways from the existence of the “bad” species.
We then move to an even more obscure area when we deal with good and evil in human society. The philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote with reference to the moral law inside of him, which fascinated him as much as the starry sky above him, but the moral law of Kant might be considered immoral by some aboriginal tribes in the South American jungles. There is no such thing as a standard moral law that could be accepted by all humans. It is very difficult to give a definition of the moral law that lies in the foundations of human nature. It is as hard as giving any definition where there may be objections, according to the Socratic Method, that will always find something that is not included in the definition, and therefore mightjeopardize our ability to define good and evil. We also cannot employ the approach of St. Augustine of Hippo who said, in answering the question “what is time?”: “If no one asks me, I know; but if any person requires me to tell him, I cannot.” These two approaches cannot help us to identify what is good and what is evil in human nature.
Why is it so important for us to distinguish between good and evil? Of course sometimes we accept that there are gray areas in our moral understanding between the absolutes of black and white morality, whereby we accept the eventuality that sometimes good actions or intentions will have evil or malicious results, and that evil actions can possess elements of goodness in them. Nevertheless, most of the time we will try to determine certain events or actions as absolutes, either good or evil. Is this approach specific only to humans? We cannot say that, because in the animal kingdom we can find the same systems of judgment. As an example, imagine yourself fishing. When you put your bait into the water you may see many tiny fish that hesitate whether or not to bite. You can see a real hesitation, as you might see in some scientist solving a difficult problem. How is it possible that in such a tiny, cold brain we can find the same judgment system trying to distinguish between whether or not the bait is food, which is good, or a life- threatening danger, which is evil? This means that the moral law of Immanuel Kant has its counterpart in the early stages of biological evolution and that the ability to distinguish between good and evil is supported by positive natural selection, because the fish that is not able to make this judgment will inevitably die or be killed without any chance for reproducing.
Of course it is more complicated when it comes to human moral standards, but the difference is not as big as one would think. For example, self sacrifice and altruism, which are considered some of the most exemplary acts that can be attributed to human nature, are quite well known and documented in the animal kingdom. We don’t find many animals that are ready to die for certain ideas, like some brave scientists that ended up burned at the stake for their beliefs, but we still find a lot of examples where animals sacrifice their own lives in order to protect their offspring or to promote their species’ survival. We would argue that self sacrifice in the animal kingdom is governed by instinct and is more common than in human society where individuals are reluctant to endanger their lives for a multitude of reasons.
Do good and evil exist from the point of view of nature? Are these categories included in the structure of the universe? Is a supernova explosion an act of good or of evil? It is neutral, and can be valued by human minds in moral terms only through realization of its consequences.
Do good and evil exist from the point of view of God? No matter what definition of God we choose we always define God as some sort of thermometer of good and evil, with the tools of punishment and reward. Can heaven exist without God? Can God exist without heaven? Can Satan exist without hell? Can hell exist without Satan? In the simplified picture of the universe which we have inherited from our ancestors these categories cannot exist independently; even atheists just narrow these categories but still use the same terms of good and evil, punishment and reward. The problem is that evil empires are considered evil only by their enemies, while they are considered as exemplary by their governors and often by most of their people. Just as when history is written by the conquerors it is only in the eyes of the nations that fell under their power that they are evil, while succeeding generations remember them as the greatest societies that ever existed.
We would like to emphasize that our attempt to define human nature by investigating the categories of good and evil doesn’t have any intention of justifying evil acts on the grounds that if evil cannot be well defined then evil actions can be more acceptable. Our intention is to argue that neither ‘good’ nor ‘evil’ can be used as universal absolutes, but rather that they should always be used with reference to the individual or society that is being evaluated.
Let us discuss how we understand our inner sense of ‘sin’. There are two kinds of regret that we can experience towards our own wrongdoing. The first one is real regret, such that when the same circumstances repeat themselves the individual will never do the same thing again, even if no one is looking and there is no threat of punishment or penalization. Another sort of regret, which is not as genuine, is caused by the realization of wrongdoing through punishment; this sort of regret cannot be considered a true expression of personal moral belief. This includes not only the fear of punishment that might come from society, which Sigmund Freud categorized as the super-ego, but also the fear of punishment beyond material life, like the fear of God’s wrath. Even though most such cases are considered to be honest regret, they are not. It is not correct to argue that the moral law described by Immanuel Kant is something fundamental to human nature; at the very least it cannot be considered as fundamental and constant as the stars above.
The moral laws inside us are flexible. For example, a lack of food can easily justify stealing; danger can justify defensive aggression against a threat, even homicide. There is no such thing as a mature or immature moral law; morality just constantly changes with the evolving needs of our body and character. It is also influenced by external pressures. Humans possess a weak memory or capacity to recall past situations, because our memory is based not on an imaging of the scenery as a whole as on video-cassette, but on a multi-dimensional imprint of the event in the brain that can be retrieved by employing different associations. Thus the same events can be analyzed and perceived differently, at a later time, by the same individual in a much different context. Absence of stable memory and firm systems of recognition and realization allow us to change our moral beliefs in a very efficient way, allowing us to adjust our moral behavior in a fluid manner in response to the internal and external pressures that we face. So how can we call moral law a ‘law’ if it is changed as frequently as our need to change it? Most of the time we don’t realize that a change has been made, and we feel we are being quite consistent within our code of personal morals and beliefs.
Now let us discuss the question, “How might God judge our sins?” Is there any moral law so fundamental that it could be attributed to the Almighty? We might argue that by giving us free will God gave us the privilege of judging our own deeds, and thus if we consider our own deeds to be “good” ones, how can they be evaluated independently by conventional moral standards? We are not sinners in the eyes of God, and only if we judge ourselves does God confirm our punitive ruling against ourselves by assigning us to an eternity in hell.
This is a very malicious argument. This kind ofargument endorses situations such as those where a bloodthirsty murderer who doesn’t regret his deedswould still end up in heaven because he is consistent within himself, while a good person who for some reason regrets some of his innocent deeds would end up in hell. This is not a very worthwhile system to follow. We have abandoned a simple system of punishment and reward, simply because the truth is much more complicated.
Christian morality is the most developed system of morality that humankind has ever achieved, because it includes a list of recommendations such that, if all living people were to follow them, our world would become heaven on earth. Theoretically Christian morality should work this way, but it never does. The problem is that we try to encourage people to adhere to a fundamental, unchanging moral code, assuming that they are morally mature. We should encourage instead a constant search and constant check of current internal moral values that actually can yield a better human being, rather than a person with seemingly inflexible moral beliefs. We can improve human nature by encouraging this constant search, because awareness of the fact that there is no such thing as a constant fundamental moral law inside of us leaves us responsible for making right decisions every single day, for checking our morals every single hour and trying to follow them, every minute of our lives.

Submitted: January 30, 2008

© Copyright 2022 Bruce Kriger. All rights reserved.

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